What is a Promise Worth?

How do you prevent hyperinflation without destroying the economy? The answer ain’t Bitcoin.

A virtual currency like Bitcoin uses a decentralized proof-of-work ledger (the block chain) to solve the the double-spending problem. “Satoshi Nakamoto” deserve serious accolades for this clever architecture, but Bitcoin has a few serious problems. The first is its lack of security. The infrastructure around the currency is shoddy and fragile. The website where 80% of Bitcoin trading currently occurs is called the Magic: The Gathering Online Exchange (a.k.a. Mt.Gox). Recently Mt.Gox has crashed and been cracked, and does not support easy shorting. More importantly, the Bitcoin system may never mature without a central authority spending a lot of (traditional) money to build-out the infrastructure, with negligible or negative financial return-on-investment. Without a social program, in other words.

Even if Bitcoins did have the infrastructure and liquidity of a traditional currency like U.S. dollars or Japanese yen, there is another more fundamental problem with Bitcoin becoming the money of the future. Bitcoins are intrinsically deflationary.

The future will always be in one of two states: Either Bitcoin miners are running up against the limits of Moore’s Law, and are unable to profitably mine new Bitcoins. Or some bullshit singularity has occurred, giving us all access to infinite computational power. In this state, we would run up against the Bitcoin architecture’s hard-coded monetary supply cap of twenty-one million Bitcoins.

If human desire is infinite, then people will always want more money for goods and services. (All else equal, of course!) So we have an intrinsically fixed supply of a fungible good along with increasing demand. Therefore a Bitcoin is guaranteed to increase in value over time. Any fraction of a Bitcoin is guaranteed to increase in value over time. This may sound good if you happen to have a lot of BTC (Bitcoin) in your wallet. However at a macroeconomic level deflation is catastrophic, which I will explain.

A Hamburger on Tuesday
Would you trade something today that is certain to be worth more tomorrow? What about if the “something” is a currency, a good that has no intrinsic value other than it being money? (You cannot heat your house with the digital dollars in your checking account. Gotta pay the utility company first.) In an emergency you might spend your deflating currency, but in general you should hold onto your BTC as long as possible. And since there is uncertainty about the degree to which Bitcoin will deflate, the market will not instantly price BTC correctly. The BTC price of goods and services will not instantly adjust to match the level of computational power available to miners.

Some Bitcoin proponents think we can instantly discount the BTC price of all goods and services to sync-up with systematic BTC deflation, but this would need a seriously high-tech payment infrastructure. Square and Stripe are trying, but does anyone seriously believe the prices of all goods and services can be discounted in real-time by a macroeconomic indicator? We can’t even ditch the wasteful dollar bill!

The Bitcoin bulls also emphasize a currency’s dual role as a means of transaction and a store-of-value, but intrinsic deflation trashes both roles simultaneously. As a means of transaction, deflation makes allocating capital (money) across projects and activities difficult, and again, requires that perfect payment infrastructure. Since systematic deflation destroys every asset’s value and discourages economic activity, deflationary currencies do badly as stores-of-value. Less economic activity means GDP contraction and decreased livelihood. Yes, despite what Professor von Nimby may have spewed in your Postmodern Marxist Studies class, GDP is a very strong indicator for overall human happiness. Perpetual economic contraction makes your savings account irrelevant. You might have a zillion super-valuable BTC in your digital wallet, but you have nothing to spend them on. In other words, if you think (hyper-) inflation is bad, deflation is even worse…

Passing Notes
Let us go back to a few of the original Bitcoin goals. Bitcoin proponents want an efficient, liquid currency immune from the distortion caused by a government or central bank’s monetary policy. This is reasonable since inflationary monetary policy has a sad history of trashing peoples’ savings accounts, in places like the Weimar Republic or more recently in Argentina. So how can we build the decentralized, non-deflationary currency of the future?

Notes are an ancient monetary concept desperate for rethinking in the Internet age. At its most basic level, a note is a promise to exchange money, goods or services at some point in the future. However a note is not quite a futures contract, because the promise need not ever be exercised. And a note is not really an options contract, because a note need not ever expire. The most obvious form of a note is what a U.S. dollar bill used to represent when we were on the gold standard. It was a promise that the holder of the note (dollar bill) could exchange the note for a dollar’s worth of physical gold at any time. Notes are a lot easier to store and deal with than gold, and so they make a lot of sense for getting work done efficiently. We could also talk about the fungibility of notes, but that is less important at this point. And notes are definitely easier to move around than loaves of bread, head of cattle, barrels of oil, or other physical stuff with intrinsic value.

A hoard of notes would also be a decent store-of-value in your savings account, as long as the writer of the notes remains solvent and trusted. For example, a million dollars worth of U.S. gold-convertible notes is a great retirement nest-egg, since most normal people expect the U.S. government to honor its promises for a long time.

When the entity writing the note is trusted by just about everyone — expected to honor its contract — then the writer can declare the notes to be unconvertible, all at once. The notes become fiat currency, currency that is not explicitly backed by anything but the trust that the note writer will not issue too many notes and inflate away peoples’ savings.

Why does most global economic activity happen using a handful of fiat currencies, like the U.S. dollar or Euro? Nations have traditionally supported their (fiat) currencies through policy and war, because before the Internet trust did not scale. Imagine a small town. Mel and Stannis are neighbors in this town. Mel trusts Stannis to honor his promises, and accepts a note from Stannis in return for mowing Stannis’s lawn for the next year. Stannis’s note he writes for Mel says something like “Stannis promises to give the bearer of this note 100 loaves of bread, anytime.” Mel’s landlord Dave also trusts Stannis, and so he has no problem taking Mel’s note as rent. Stannis has essentially printed his own money that is a lot more convenient that baking 100 loaves of bread. Now in the next town over, no one really knows Stannis. Therefore Dave will have a hard time making use of Stannis’s note when he visits there to spend time with his grandparents. Dave and Mel trust Stannis, but the people living in the next town over do not.

In this parochial example, trust has not scaled across the network of transactions and relationships. The money Stannis created, the note he wrote, is not all that useful to Mel. Instead she could insist on being compensated by a note from an entity more trusted the world over, say the First Bank of Lannister which has a branch in both towns. Mel, Stannis, Dave and his grandparents all probably trust the First Bank of Lannister to pay its debts.

If Dave wants to spend Mel’s note written by Stannis in the next town over, he can ask a third party to guarantee or sign-off on the note. This can be done by exchanging Stannis’s promise for a promise by the First Bank of Lannister, which is more trusted throughout the realm. The First Bank of Lannister would be compensated for extending its trust by taking a cut of the promise from Stannis.

So before he leaves on his trip, Dave takes his rent check (note) from Mel into the First Bank of Lannister. They write a new note saying “The First Bank of Lannister promises to give the bearer of this note 95 loaves of bread, anytime” and gives this note to Dave in exchange for the note written by Stannis. The bank has decided to take responsibility for chasing down Stannis if he turns out to reneg on his promise, and in return they are compensated with the value of five loaves of bread. Here the Bank of Lannister has also issued its own currency, but more as a middle-man than someone doing economic activity like Mel’s lawnmowing or Dave’s landlording.

This middle-man role is very important but also difficult to scale across a physical economy. Eventually someone refuses to trust the First Bank of Lannister, and then the chain of economic activity halts. This is why the world’s global economy has consolidated onto a few currencies, for reasons of both efficiency and trust.

The Internets
In the age of the Internet and pervasive social networks like Facebook and Linkedin, everyone is connected in a global network. This is the famous degrees -of- Kevin Bacon or Erdös Number concept. Any two people are connected by just a few steps along the network. Most of Stannis’s friends on Facebook would be willing to accept a note or promise from Stannis, and the same holds true for Dave, Mel and the First Bank of Lannister’s social networks. Since the whole of humanity is probably connected in a trust network, software can automatically write those middle-man notes along the chain of connections. Therefore any two people can automatically find a chain of trust for spending money.

Back to our example, but in the age of the Internet. Mel, Dave and Stannis all trust each other, since they are Linkedin contacts. Peter reneged on a note a few months ago, so no one really trusts Peter except Stannis. Everyone unfriended Peter but Stannis, so Peter has a very isolated social network. This time around we do not need to care about geography and small towns, since everyone is connected via the Internet and social networks. Let’s say Peter wants to buy an old iPad from Dave, and Dave thinks the iPad is worth about a hundred loaves of bread. Peter could try to write a note promising a hundred loaves of bread, but Dave would not accept this note since he does not trust Peter. Now for the cool part.

Peter goes to a notes exchange website (NoteEx), and asks for a hundred-loaf note that Dave will trust. The website knows that Stannis trusts Peter, and that Dave trusts Stannis. (See the triangle?) Through the website, Stannis writes Peter a note for one hundred loaves of bread that Peter gives to Dave in exchange for the iPad. Dave has a note he trusts in exchange for his good, at the price he wanted. Similarly Stannis receives a note written by Peter, whom he trusts. This note might be for 105 loaves of bread, giving Stannis a little cut in exchange for trusting the dodgy Peter. This five loaf interest, cut or edge is Stannis’s compensation as a middle-man.

This can all be done automatically by the NoteEx server with a list of middle-men volunteers. People volunteer to be middle-men up to a maximum amount of exposure or risk (i.e. one thousand loaves of bread total). Or middle-men could even offer to guarantee up to two degrees of Kevin Bacon away, for a much higher cut. After a bunch of people volunteer to be middle-men in the NoteEx process, all economic activity could be subsumed, with social networks ensuring that you only ever receive payment (promises) from people you trust. A NoteEx transaction could have more than one middle-man, up to the six degrees of Kevin Bacon maximum that we assume connects all people.

Ironically, the good or service underlying the notes is not all that important, since notes are very rarely redeemed. In the same way that powerful governments can support fiat currencies backed by nothing, fiat notes backed by loaves of bread will not actually turn everyone into a baker. Usually notes are exchanged with their value being the trusted promise, but not necessarily the realization. Heavy stuff here.

Decentralized Bakery
The NoteEx website would be built atop an open and standard protocol, and competing notes exchanges could borrow from the Bitcoin architecture to be decentralized (i.e. the shared ledger). More importantly, there would be a natural level of inflation in the system as the cuts or interest that middle-men demand increase the total value of all promises across the economy. And of course, notes are an excellent store-of-value because who would you trust more to support you in an emergency or retirement than your tightest friends & family?

So! We have a theoretical monetary system free from government interference, and one that encourages economic activity through modest and natural inflation.

This entry was posted in market-microstructure, politics, quant, quantitative-analysis, trading. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What is a Promise Worth?

  1. One of the Bitcoin’s selling points is anonymity. I’ve thought about note-issuing schemes like this, and my thinking always founders on the problem of privacy. I’m not sure I want absolutely everyone I know to be able to peer into my spending accounts. Any ideas?

    • ben says:

      Hmm, I’m skeptical about Bitcoin’s anonymity because since every transaction is publicly logged — though not necessarily attributable. The smart cryptopunks (not me) will probably fix this through multiply layers of indirection ala’ Tor.

      I’m not sure a consortium of note exchanges would necessarily trash privacy. No one out there needs to see how much bread I *could* bake (i.e. my savings account), in order for me to *promise* to hand over bread. Right?

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